For teens and pre-teens back in the ‘80s, Alvin Schwartz’ 1981 horror anthology “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (and its sequels, printed in 1984 and 1991) were old-fashioned frightmares — effective because they were just long enough to plant the seeds of terror and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.
Now comes a movie bearing Schwartz’ ominous title, which strings some of those iconic stories to their best use on a clothesline of a story.
It’s Halloween 1968 in Mill Valley, Pa., and bookish high-schooler Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti) is preparing for a night out with her pals Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) to prank the school bully, Tommy (Austn Abrams). They do, and Tommy chases the trio through the drive-in, where they find refuge in the car of Ramón (Michael Garza), an 18-year-old Mexican-American passing through town.
Stella recognizes Ramón as a fellow horror freak (the movie playing at the drive-in is George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” presumably on its initial theatrical run), so she says, “You want to see a haunted house?” Stella leads the guys to the old Bellows house, where a century ago Sarah Bellows was locked away in a basement room, telling stories to kids through the walls — and those kids were never seen again.
Stella finds one of Sarah’s journals, filled with stories seemingly written in blood. The last story in the book seems freshly written, about a scarecrow that comes to life. What Stella and the guys don’t know is that, not too far away, Tommy is in the cornfield on his family’s farm — being pursued by a sinister scarecrow.
The next night, Stella sees the bloody words form on the page — this time making one of her friends disappear. Stella and Ramón have to work together to figure out how Sarah Bellows, who supposedly died 70 years earlier, could be making these horrific stories appear and come to life.
Director André Øvredal, who made the low-budget shocker “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” strikes the right blend of outright frights and brooding atmosphere. True to the books’ demographic, the scares aren’t too gory, but still sharp enough to make moviegoers jump in their seats. (There’s a thing with spiders that will make fans of “Dr. Pimple Popper” crawl under their seats.)
The screenplay, by the brother team of Dan and Kevin Hageman, makes the stories’ episodic nature work in the movie’s favor. Some credit must go to producer Guillermo Del Toro, who shares story credit, for some of the saturation of dark mood. The Hagemans also add notes of dread by placing two real-life horror stories in the background: The Vietnam War and the impending presidential election of Richard Nixon.
The cast of mostiy unknowns, led by the plucky Colletti, keep the terror at a human level — and Natalie Ganzhorn, who plays Chuck’s irritated big sister, is a scream queen in the making. The teens are a perfect fit for a movie that serves up the right level of frights for the slumber-party set.
‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’
Opens Friday, August 9, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references. Running time: 111 minutes.